Margo Hall Plays the 285-Year-Old Aunt Ester in August Wilson's Gem of the Ocean

The language and rhythms in August Wilson’s plays speak to Margo Hall, and she says they have an element of spirituality and deal with families holding onto their traditions while trying to fit into the world today.

An incident from her childhood in Detroit reminds her of that.

“My grandmother always had a garden and once my mom had a fever and my grandma told me to get her collard greens and wrap them in a cotton cloth and put it on her head and it would draw her fever out,” Hall said. “It took away her fever. Luckily, I was still young and I didn’t go, ‘Grandma that doesn’t make any sense.’ His plays always have an element of that- of things that get taken away from communities and from African Americans.”

The Marin Theatre Company’s artistic director Jasson Minadakis has committed to producing all ten of Wilson’s century cycle, which dramatize the African American experience in the 20th century. Hall appeared in the two they’ve done so far, Seven Guitars and Fences. She stars now in Gem of the Ocean as the 285-year-old Aunt Ester. This play was written in 2003, his second to last play, but it’s the first one chronologically in the century cycle, set in Pittsburgh in 1904.

[jump] Being the closest to the time of slavery makes it the most spiritual, Hall says.

“People were trying to fit into a world here in America when they still had a lot of old traditions and everything was being taken away — their gods and beliefs, but in order to survive they had to call on those beliefs,” she said. “Aunt Ester is grounded in that — she has to hold it for everybody. They even go to the City of Bones in the bottom of the ocean where people who didn’t make it across on the boat settled.”

Hall calls Aunt Ester a healer and says she connects with the character and her spirituality. She enjoys the way the director, Daniel Alexander Jones, approaches the character and that there is no makeup trying to make her look like a 285-year-old.

“It’s always one of those things, like how old do you have to be to get to play Aunt Ester? Eighty?“ she asked. “The way Daniel is presenting the play gives me an option to see Aunt Ester in a much more open way.”

Jones, a New York based director and performer, specializes in a technique called the Theatrical Jazz Aesthetic. Hall, a drama teacher herself, says at first she was resistant to it.

“This is a whole different way approaching August Wilson and we hold him in such reverence,” she said. “I could tell I was fighting it, but then I realized how freeing it was to do it this way, and I let go and embraced it. It’s really beautiful.”

Hall says it’s about playing the chords as opposed to thinking about a character’s motivation.

“It’s like, ‘You’re the saxophone right now and you’re the trumpet,” she said. “It’s thinking of terms of jazz and what is your solo?”

Hall, who grew up with a stepfather who played jazz, can appreciate that.

“It’s very exciting for me to think of theater in this way,” she said. “We have a great cast and I think MTC is very brave for allowing Daniel to take this to a different level.”

Gem of the Ocean, Jan. 19 – Feb. 14., at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley, $20-$47, 415-388-5200.

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